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New Documentary Tackles Atheism

The documentary titled “A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy and Meaning in a World Without God” will be shown at the Landmark Theatre this Sunday

In certain quarters of America, atheism is a dirty word.

“Every single murderer over 40 years that I have covered in these circumstances has been either atheistic [or] agnostic, no religious basis at all.”

That was TV news host Bill O’Reilly on his primetime Fox News program, commenting on the August shooting of two Virginia journalists. O’Reilly’s statement is questionable, considering shooter Vester Flanagan wrote a 23-page manifesto claiming to be directed by Jehovah, or God. He also grew up as “a strict Jehovah’s Witness.”

This isn’t to say Flanagan represents Jehovah’s Witnesses — he doesn’t — but O’Reilly’s contradiction of Flanagan’s religion illustrates a trend in the United States: the distrust and political scapegoating of atheism.

Chris Johnson is trying to change that. On Sunday at 2 p.m., the 33-year-old photographer and filmmaker will visit the Landmark Theatre for a screening and discussion of his documentary, “A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy and Meaning in a World Without God.”

In the film, atheists from the U.S., UK and Canada discuss their raison d’être and the meaning of life. Featured interviews include Matt Dillahunty, philosopher A.C. Grayling, actress/comedienne Julia Sweeney and record breaking free solo climber Alex Honnold.

Johnson isn’t looking for a debate.

“Instead of talking about how religious people are wrong or why theistic arguments are wrong, the project I’m doing really takes another angle,” he said. “From the reaction I’m seeing so far, that’s something that’s very much needed right now.”

In studies from the University of Minnesota in 2006 and the University of British Columbia in 2011, participants associated atheism with distrust and suspicion, and a 2014 Pew Research Center Poll showed that an atheist presidential candidate would be a political pariah.

That distrust isn’t a conservative or republican phenomenon.

When Jessica Ahlquist made headlines in 2012 for winning a lawsuit to remove a Christian prayer banner from her Rhode Island public high school, State Rep. Peter G. Palumbo, a democrat, called her “an evil little thing” on local radio. Police escorted her to and from school because of death threats and harassment.

The situation became so ugly that 12 area clergy members held a press conference in support of Ahlquist, calling for an end to the attacks against her and her family. Rev. Leigh McCaffrey of the United Church of Christ urged listeners to show respect and love rather than vitriolic fear.

“We believe that diversity is our strength, and that young people should be encouraged to think for themselves, not coerced into silence,” said McCaffrey.

Dr. Kenneth Baynes, professor of philosophy at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, thinks much of the political posturing regarding atheism is a constituency-pleasing campaign game, adding little of substance to conversations about religion in the public sphere.

“I think it’s strategy, and it’s bad strategy,” said Baynes.

The Central New York region has its own share of atheist and agnostic organizations

Corrina Allen, 37, is the co-founder and president of the Central New York Humanist Association, or CNY Humanists. The group is organized under the umbrella of the Central New York Coalition of Reason, which is sponsoring the screening. Other local groups include Syracuse Atheists, Freethinkers of Upstate New York (FUNY) and Secular Singles of Central New York.

“I hope that if someone religious comes to [the screening] they’ll take away maybe an increased understanding that non-believers aren’t horrible, awful baby-eaters,” Allen said. “They’re just regular, normal people who are good and decent.”

What: “A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy and Meaning in a World Without God” Film screening and Q&A with director Chris Johnson

When: Sunday, October 18 at 2 p.m.

Where: Landmark Theatre 362 S. Salina Street, Syracuse, NY 13202

For more information, click here.

Header photo: Julia Sweeney, author and star of her one-woman show, “Letting Go of God,” is featured in “A Better Life.” © A Better Life/Christopher Johnson
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