Interview: David Fitzgerald, Founder of the Atheist Film Festival
The Atheist Film Festival, a one-day San Francisco event now in its fifth year, is hitting the Bay Area again this Saturday, September 14th at the Roxie Theater with an all-day lineup of films designed to celebrate and explore Atheism through the language of cinema.
Festival co-founder and director David Fitzgerald, author of two books on atheism (Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion) and one of the most prevalent atheist activists in the country sat with us to chat about the festival lineup, the biggest misconceptions about atheists, what a Christian can expect when attending the festival, the moment he realized he was an atheist, and more.
For ticket info and more info about the festival, check out sfathiestfilmfestival.org
The most typical reaction I get when I tell people that I’m covering the Atheist film festival is, “What the hell is an atheist film?”
(laughs) I like to call it “heretic-friendly cinema”. The reason we call it The Atheist Film Festival is that before [the festival], I was always disappointed by the way atheists are portrayed in cinema, in Hollywood. Even though Hollywood has this godless reputation, it really isn’t godless enough when it comes to treating atheists as real people. We’re always these unhappy killjoys or these crazy, ridiculous caricature villains who get their comeuppance at the end of the movie, or they have this come-to-Jesus moment at the end and realize the error of their ways. It’s just goofy.
What atheist stereotype bugs you the most?
I think the one I get from most people is that we’re unhappy. They picture these chain smoking French guys in black berets reading Nietzsche and going, “Oh life, existence is absurd!” It seems to be the biggest surprise when people find out that I’m an atheist, they all say, “But you’re so happy!” It always cracks me up when I hear things like that.
Is it difficult being an atheist?
It is and it isn’t. The Bay Area is paradise for anybody who’s left of center or out of the mainstream. But, I know people who live in Oklahoma, Missouri—they have a different experience than I do. A big part of this [festival] is not because I have it bad, but because there are atheists out there who are having it bad. If we can just let them know that they are not alone, that alone is a huge thing. If we can actually give them support for what they’re doing and how they want to live their lives [and let them know that] they’re not crazy, or that they’re not the only ones that aren’t crazy, then I’m happy to do that.
It’s a geographical thing.
It really is. I was going to say it’s a Bible Belt thing, but it’s really a city vs. country thing. It’s like the divide between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats.
Christianity and all kinds of beliefs in America are starting to erode thanks to things like the internet and our scientific knowledge of things like Christian origins increasing. The paradox of that is that the more rational Christians peel off from Christianity, you have less Christianity, but wha’t left is this nutty, chewy center of whack-job-ness that’s very vocal and very scary.
Were you raised Christian?
I was raised Southern Baptist, “The One and Only True Faith.” I was Southern Baptist for a long time.
What was your childhood like?
It was a great childhood. I don’t have any abuse stories or anything like that. I loved having this extended family. I still love all my Christian relatives and friends. I loved having the certainty of knowing you have all the answers and knowing you were going to go straight to heaven.
Black and white.
Very black and white. I think I’m the kind of atheist I am now because of the kind of Christian I was then. When you’re taught to defend the truth, uphold the truth, and everything is truth truth truth truth, and then you realize, “That’s not so true!” Boom. You do a 180. I’m just as dedicated to the truth as I ever was, but that is not the truth, and now I have reasons for what I believe is the truth.
Can you pinpoint the moment you knew?
I absolutely can, and it was exactly that—a moment. I used to flirt with this girl by having theological arguments with her. I would always give the standard, stock Christian answer and she would always give the pagan, earth mother, renaissance faire reply.
How old were you?
I was in college then, so 20-21. Old enough to know better! We got into it, and she said, “Well, you know Dave, the Hindu religion is 3000 years older than Christianity.” I was all set to jump on her case, and I stopped. I realized I had no idea whether it was older or not. That realization hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was just like the Mormons and the Jehova’s Witnesses that I was railing against. From that millisecond on I never looked at religion the same way. It just seemed so obviously fake. Evolution seemed so obviously true. I felt so much more connected to everybody I knew—not just to the believers that believed the right thing and the right book and the right way, but to everybody. I feel like I had much more of a Christ-like attitude and love for everybody once I gave up Christinity.
You’re an atheist activist. Most of the atheists I know don’t like to engage in any type of religious conversation with their non secular friends. They mostly keep to themselves on that front.
Right. In fact, for some people, even calling themselves atheist would make them more religious than they are now. Religion is such a non-part of their life. There’s no need to define themselves, and I’m fine with that. That’s actually another reason we made The Atheist Film Festival. This isn’t about preaching about being an atheist. This isn’t about telling you how to be an atheist. This is about enjoying what it means to be an atheist and celebrating that.
What can a Christian expect if they were to walk into the Roxie Theater on festival day?
This is a great chance to see what Atheists are like. We’ve got a movie called Hug an Atheist by a Belgian filmmaker out of the UK.
World premiere, right?
World premiere! I’m really excited about this movie because she was so excited about seeing what ordinary atheists are going through in America. She was so inspired by it that she wanted to shed light to see that they’re not monsters. They’re not unhappy killjoys. They’re some of the most interesting and kindhearted people she knew. I love the fact that we created this film festival to highlight movies like this, and now, [filmmakers] are creating movies for the film festival! It’s really awesome. I think a Christian would come away with a different feel for what atheists are and who we are after seeing a movie like Hug an Atheist.
So you’re urging people of faith to come out to the festival, yes?
Absolutely! We are not going to check your I.D. at the door. This film festival is for everybody, and there are a lot of movies here that Christians will want to go see, especially movies like The Magdalene Sisters and Kumare. Even movies like The Revisionaries are going to change the way they look at how their fellow Christians or even the Christians they don’t associate with are acting behind the scenes.
Tell me a little more about the lineup. Let’s start with Kumare.
Kumare is such an awesome movie. I was so on the edge of my seat by the end. It’s the true story of this Indian American who decides to get in touch with his roots and goes back to India. He gets turned on to guru culture and is blown away by it so much that he decides, “You know, I think I could become a fake guru and do some good with this.” And that’s exactly what he does. Even though it’s a documentary, it feels like a feature film. It’s one of those stories that’s so bizarre and out-there that it could only be a true story. It’s an amazing movie and I just love it.
The movie is very funny, but the ending was more beautiful and uplifting than I was expecting.
It’s surprising what you get when you have a fake guru with a real following. Another film we have is a doc called The Revisionaries. It’s talking about the creationists who are on the Texas School Board actively trying to get evolution out of there and to insert their own agenda any way they can. Very creepy to see how joyful they are about doing this.
Another scary movie that’s uplifting when you see what’s happening is Sophia Investigates the Good News Club. Sophia is this 16 or 17-year-old who goes out to investigate this child evangelism movement called The Good News Club. I’d never heard of these guys, but apparently they’ve been around for 80 years. They are all over the place, in elementary schools, going in and trying not just to proselytize these students, but make the kids that they target target their fellow kids. It’s very scary what they’re doing and what they’re getting away with.
There’s a short film called Ron Goes to Heaven. Very funny. We have two really brilliant movies that didn’t get as big a release as they were hoping for at the time, and one of the reasons we made the festival is to showcase movies like this, that didn’t get much of a distribution run the first time around, and to be able to put them up on the big screen for audiences. Creation is this really amazing biopic of Charles Darwin, and his conflict with faith and science. The Magdalene Sisters is this Irish movie that came out ten years ago. It’s the story about these notorious asylums in Ireland that for decades would take girls who were accused of being wayward—often without any kind of evidence whatsoever—and basically turn them into slave labor for life. It’s shocking, it’s horrifying, and this is why we fight. It’s because of things like this.
The thing about being an atheist activist is that you must inherently have to challenge people about their beliefs constantly, right?
You do. It’s like Daniel Dennett said: There’s no polite way to say to someone, “Your life belief system is wrong.” There’s no polite way to say it. The festival is not here to preach at people. It’s not here to get you angry. It’s here to talk about atheism, to show atheism for what it is. Your reaction to that will be either very happy or very angry, depending on what’s being said. We’re not trying to preach here. We’re not checking your I.D. at the door and saying, “Oh no, you must be this kind of atheist and believe the right thing!” We hope Christians come here. We hope believers come as well as people who are just interested in good movies. The really are astounding movies.
Speaking of astounding movies, what do you think is a film—non-documentary—that represents atheism in the best way?
There was a film that came out a couple years ago that we showed called The Contender that talked about a woman who was going through the process of getting to the White House staff and her appointment struggles. She was an atheist character, and that fact alone was enough to give her a huge disadvantage in the process. I thought that was a great movie. There was a film that came out a few years ago called Agora, and incredible movie talking about 4th century Egypt, a time when Christianity was still a minority. Jews, Pagans, and Christians were still at each others’ throats, and [this was] before Christianity came out on top. That’s an amazing movie. It’s astounding to me, watching it now, how much 3rd century and 4th century Christianity looks like 20th century Islamic or Iranian revolutionaries in a lot of ways.
The festival takes place at the Roxie, which I think is perfect.
Yeah, it really is awesome. I can’t help but make a shout-out about the director’s reception party, which is the night before. That is an awesome chance to rub elbows with the directors, some of the stars, and the celebrity guest stars that we’re going to be having there. If you’re going to plunk down your money for the festival pass, and I hope you do, plunk down just a bit more for the party, because it’s an awesome party. You’ll be glad that you did.
The Roxie feels like your own living room. As it turns out, it’s the oldest operating theater in San Francisco. It’s been around more than 100 years.
The festival is in its fifth year now. How have you seen it affect the local community?
It just continues to get bigger every year, and I’m really excited to see it in its fifth year. It’s just awesome. It blows me away that we’ve made it to five years.
You didn’t think you’d make it to five years?
I’ll just say it’s very heartening to see that it continues to grow and how many people have embraced it an continue to love it and support it. It just warms my heart to see that happening.