Interview with Brian Flemming, director of The God Who Wasn’t There

brian flemming director

Brian Flemming is a film director, a playwright, and an outspoken atheist. In 2005, he released the controversial documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There, a film not just arguing that Jesus wasn’t God, but that Jesus the man never existed at all. He’s also the creator of the faux documentary, Nothing So Strange,and the musical, Bat Boy.

Last year, Flemming developed the Blasphemy Challenge, which called on atheists to upload videos to YouTube where they commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Flemming has a blog where he talks about atheism, film, and politics and a variety of other things as well.

Simon Owens: In the past year, we’ve seen a huge surge of atheists in the media. We have everything from The God Delusion to Letter to a Christian Nation to your documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There. Does this mean that atheists are finally banding together as activists, or that the public is becoming more open to hearing the atheist point of view? Or both?

Brian Flemming: The number of atheists is growing, we’re getting more vocal, and as evidence rises that religion is doing harm to our culture, people are more receptive to a godless point of view. In fact, many people who don’t identify as atheists actually are atheists, in that they live their lives as if there is no supreme being. They may obey the rule that says it is rude to publicly reveal one’s atheism (as it implicitly criticizes theists), but they’re essentially atheists.

The visibility of atheists isn’t much of a surprise to me. I think we’ll see the United States head down the same road as the countries of Europe — which over the past several decades have become not only strongly secular but also specifically atheistic. When religion is openly discussed on a fair playing field, it never wins. It simply can’t be defended on rational grounds. Barring a development such as a great disaster, which could be exploited to empower totalitarian ideologies like Christianity, we’re headed for atheism as a default point of view.

This development is, of course, a very good thing for the United States. There is a correlation between standard of living and atheism — the more atheistic a country is, the healthier it is, in terms of overall lifespan, overall wealth, access to health care, stillbirth rate, children living with two parents and many other measures. Even within the United States, the people doing the worst by these measures are in the Bible Belt. The most religious communities in the U.S., for example, have the highest divorce rate.

As atheism increases, we’ll see others benefit as well. In terms of giving to the less fortunate, the highest rate of giving to other countries occurs in the most atheistic countries.

As facts like these make it into the mainstream conversation, I think we’ll hear a lot more positive things about atheism — and a lot more wonder at how so many of us once believed that Jesus would soon come down from the sky and save us.

Simon Owens: In our last interview in early 2006, you indicated that Bush’s greatest talent was “manipulating the American people with fear.” Do you think that talent has subsided at all?

Brian Flemming: Yes. He really only had that one trick, and its effectiveness is reaching its expiration date. As the man said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Simon Owens: More importantly, will that talent strengthen again if there were another terrorist attack on American soil, or will Americans be more wary next time?

Brian Flemming: I really don’t know. It is very hard to predict reactions like that. I would expect that the Bush Administration would certainly try to exploit any new attack to further increase Bush’s dictatorship powers, but people are certainly a lot more aware of Bush’s basic character now, and they don’t like it.

Simon Owens: I’ve noticed a growing trend in documentaries where the documentarian becomes a narrator in the story, while old-school film-makers like Errol Morris hardly speak at all in their documenaries. Do you think today’s documentarians are becoming too intrusive on their work? Which style is more unbiased?

Brian Flemming: I think we’re seeing the language of the documentary expand, and that’s a good thing. But the old guard will always gripe and complain. Errol Morris himself was undeservedly rebuked by the establishment for using re-creations in “The Thin Blue Line,” which is the best documentary ever made.

As it becomes easier and easier to make a documentary (and that possibility now extends as far as the lower-middle class) we’re going to hear a lot more voices that are unhampered by establishment rules — one of which is that a documentary should be “unbiased.” There’s a place for the kind of documentary that imitates newsmagazine segments, but there are also many other ways to make a documentary.

I personally don’t mind if a documentarian “intrudes” on the movie — so long as that documentarian has a strong point of view that is worth my attention or has some essential role in the action of the film. I’ve never heard anyone complain about nonfiction writers of books or magazine articles who use the word “I” — if that first- person point of view is justified by the material. Text nonfiction runs the gamut from sterile schoolbook prose to intimate personal essay. There’s no reason that video nonfiction can’t do the same thing.

Simon Owens: Do you think the “blasphemy project” is an effective way for atheists to come out of the closet?

Brian Flemming: The Blasphemy Challenge has certainly encouraged quite a few godless folks to unequivocally state that they aren’t afraid of Satan. I think it’s hilarious that this is actually a controversial statement to make — as if Satan were not a purely mythological character. The Blasphemy Challenge is radical compared to how we normally talk about superstitions such as Christianity, but it shouldn’t be. It should always be acceptable to declare one’s independence from Bronze Age myths. In fact, it shouldn’t really be news at all.

Simon Owens: Does the internet provide an outlet that atheists wouldn’t normally have?

Brian Flemming: Yes. It is hard to imagine a project like the Blasphemy Challenge without a site like YouTube to organize it. It’s amazing how easy it is for the participants in the challenge to communicate their views using video. Not too long ago, this ability was tightly held by corporations who controlled access to the extremely expensive equipment needed for TV broadcast. Now, a webcam is as cheap as $20.

Given that religion in the United States is a strongly intimidating force on media outlets, the internet is the perfect medium to express an atheistic message. Religion has created a rule in our culture that says religious beliefs are the sole beliefs that cannot be critically examined — one is allowed to state the most outlandish conclusions under the banner of religion, and it is considered rude to question those conclusions in the way one would question any others. Mainstream media outlets largely follow this rule. They praise the emperor’s new clothes.

Since atheists are essentially pointing out a naked emperor, it’s great that we have the internet to get around the special exemption that religion has declared for itself.

Simon Owens: As an atheist, do you view all religion with equal disdain? Are there any religions you dislike more than others?

Brian Flemming: I don’t see much difference between the beliefs of, say, Scientologists, and those of Christians. The space-alien theology of L. Ron Hubbard is no more or less ridiculous than the flying-dead-man theology of the Holy Bible.

Simon Owens: What is the future of atheist activism? What specific issues should atheists focus on first?

Brian Flemming: I think we’ll see many different atheists concentrate on many different messages. Declared atheists tend to be independent-minded folk with strong points of view, so we’re never going to gather under a single banner. Which makes sense — we don’t see organizations of “a-Clausians” (people who don’t believe in Santa Claus), as that group is filled with far too many sub-groups. Since atheism is merely a rational default position with regard to a certain brand of mythology, we shouldn’t expect a great deal of ideological unity within this group.