A Better Life, the Movie. Atheist Filmmaker Chris Johnson on His New Documentary

Johnson - ChrisWhat if “no gods, no masters” is simply a starting point?

In 2014, photographer and filmmaker Chris Johnson published A Better Life, a coffee table book that profiles atheists from around the world as they discuss the pursuits and relationships that give their lives joy and meaning. This summer he has released a documentary film based on the same set of interviews with atheists including comedian Julia Sweeney, philosopher A.C. Grayling, climber Alex Honnold, cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, science journalist Cara Santa Maria, human rights activist Nahla Mahmoud, and more.

“Our public conversation about atheism is two dimensional,” says Johnson. “It’s time to open the next phase. For ten years we’ve talked about what we don’t believe in. The dialogue kicked off by the New Atheist movement was much needed, but after we strip away gods and superstition, what is left? How do we see ourselves and our lives and our relationships? That’s what we need to talk about next.”

Johnson grew up in Seattle, Washington—dubbed the heart of the religious “None Zone,” with an atheist mother and a liberal Christian father; he currently resides in New York. Nonetheless, he is keenly aware of the stereotypes that make atheists one of America’s least electable minorities: male, white, hyper-intellectual, hedonistic, untrustworthy, and living empty lives devoid of purpose and meaning. By contrast with the common image, Johnson’s documentary reveals a diverse tapestry of people who live in “a world without gods.”

In this interview, Johnson discusses why he made the film and how audiences are responding.

Tarico: You started touring A Better Life in May and since have screened the film in cities from London to Lima, and from America’s godless “left coast” to the heart of Texas. How are people responding?

Johnson: It touches a nerve. In San Antonio, a woman came up to me afterwards in tears because the people interviewed in the film talked about meaning and happiness in a way that she hadn’t encountered before. They expressed her own feelings and ideas in a way she hadn’t been able to.

In Peru some people travelled eight hours on a bus to see the film. Peru is one of the most religious countries in the world—97% Catholic—so things like this aren’t talked about very much. We had Spanish subtitles done and the film was featured in national publications there.

Some people were expecting to hear the same thing from everyone—why religion is wrong. But instead, the atheists in the film were talking about really big questions: How do we find meaning and purpose? How do we relate with each other? How do we deal with our own mortality? How do we interact with the world around us? They talked about dimensions of the religious experience that are accessible to people outside of religion. So many people get incredible experiences going to church. But if you assume that all of this is natural, then these powerful experiences have natural causes. So we can ask, how can we have the same rich experiences without the things we don’t like about religion?

Tarico: As you travel around you’re getting glimpses into a variety of atheist communities in different places and cultures. What do you see?

Johnson: A lot depends on the society surrounding these communities. In London, for example, people don’t really care if you are an atheist. That’s very different in Peru or Texas. Atheists in Lima or Houston need more validation because they are pushing against the stigma imposed on them by a religious culture. The movie resonated most where people hold on to religious labels more strongly and so atheists embrace their own label as a way of holding their distinctive identity.

It’s a new thing that atheists are forming communities and I think it’s a good thing. One reason churches are so successful is because they provide spaces for people to come together—so much so that some atheist churches have to use religious spaces because those are the only community gathering places in town. Churches are very successful at getting people to support one other. If we can get that without the false truth claims of religion, we get the best of both worlds.

Tarico: The stereotype, at least here in America, is that without gods and heaven, life is dreary—with no basis for love or morality. That makes your title, A Better Life, rather bold. Even some atheists would say, “Why claim our way is better? It’s all good. Religious people have a right to their own opinions as long as they aren’t imposing them on others or undermining civil society.”

Johnson: I honestly think that if we all were to adopt a more rational, evidence-based view it would be better. Religion makes you worry about things for no reason–the concept of sin, etc. Or like all the money that gets put into opposing same sex marriage–and for what? To stop two consenting adults from being happy? It’s just crazy that people waste so much time on things that don’t affect them. When you strip away all of the unnecessary rules and worries, you can focus more on the things that really do matter in the short time that we have to be alive.

Tarico: People would not be surprised that you, and the folks you interview, promote rationality, but some might be surprised at the moral or even spiritual dimension to some of the conversations. What comes across in the interviews is a deep sense of purpose, a strong ethical structure.

Johnson: I’m glad that comes across. People think that to have profound meaningful experiences and commitments takes religion or some higher power outside of yourself. But it doesn’t.

In fact, an evidence-based rational perspective can make you more understanding and compassionate. The naturalist worldview recognizes many complex causes and effects in people’s lives and that can lead to compassion. If you look at the bishop in Les Miserables who lies and saves Jean Valjean from going back to prison, that is an act of grace—an act of compassion. This idea of grace, the idea of undeserved forgiveness—we tend to think of that in a religious sense. But if you look at the world as purely natural, then you could be inclined to think of that in the same sense. I’m an atheist and the story of Les Miserables resonates with me in the same way it does with many believers. The ideas of compassion and forgiveness are universally human and not strictly religious.

The other way that a naturalistic worldview can make us more compassionate and caring is the recognition that it’s up to us. To me, the world looks as if there is no-one pulling the strings. If you were to imagine what would a world look like with no gods, good things would happen to bad people and bad to good, and there would be pain and suffering, and things would happen arbitrarily from a moral standpoint. That seems to be the world we live in.

If there is no god pulling the strings, then all that is left is the world and the people around us.

Tarico: In Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney described getting hit by a similar realization when she tried on the idea that there is no god. She’s so awesome that I have to quote her: “’Wait a minute. What about those people who are like…unjustifiably jailed somewhere horrible, and they are like…in solitary confinement and all they do is pray…this means that I…like I think they’re praying to nobody? Is that possible?’ And then I thought, ’We gotta do something to get those people outta jail!’ Because no one else is looking out for them but us; no God is hearing their pleas. And I guess that goes for really poor people too or really oppressed people who—I had this vague notion—they had God to comfort them. And an even vaguer idea, that God had orchestrated their lot for some unknowable grand design. I wandered around in a daze thinking, ’No one is minding the store!’”

Johnson: Yes! If there is no external presence in our lives, it’s just you and the people around you. It’s just all of us together. It forces us to look inward to ourselves and each other for strength, support, compassion, love, community. All of the things that people think they get from gods we can get from each other. These other people actually exist and can manifest in your life and help you and you can do the same for them.

Tarico: Have there been any surprises along the way since you started touring the film?

Johnson: I’d say that the film has impacted my own life in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Julia Sweeney—who is in the film, by the way—talks about dwelling on the happiest moments in your life, not just reminiscing afterwards but as they are happening, because in the end that is all you have. I found myself being more mindful of moments in which I am happy—taking the time to think this is a happy moment and savoring that. It makes me remember it even more because I made a mental note of it.

One night I was on a bus in Peru, up near Cuzco. I looked out the window at a sky full of stars that I had never seen before, the stars of the southern hemisphere. In the film, A.C. Grayling talks about growing up in Africa—how bright those stars were and being able to read by starlight. So there I was in Peru, on this bus, and linking it back to the Africa of Grayling’s childhood.

Tarico: What is your big hope for this film, your piece of art?

Johnson: I like to sum up the film in a single line: There is no god—now what?

People gravitate toward religion because it deals with the big questions in life. How do we deal with death, life, love, the world around us and the people around us?

We have receptors for these questions, and religion has found a way to latch on to those. Letting go of religion creates an opening and unless people can fill that void it will fill back up with superstition. The opposite of religious thinking isn’t “nothing.” So we need to take the next step. Hopefully by engaging these questions in a naturalistic way, we become less susceptible to old answers that have harmful baggage attached. Yes, there are difficult realities, but we can discuss them in ways that don’t involve making things up.

Tarico: Anything else you’d like to add?

JJohnson - New Mexico Sunsetohnson: Just this: You don’t get much time. AC Grayling in the film talks about the fact that each of us gets less than 1000 months to live. A third of that you’re asleep, another third you’re waiting in line somewhere, so you have 300 months to do what is really important to you. Letting go of gods is just a starting point. A better life means embracing our sense of awe and wonder, our place in the universe and creating a new understanding of our most profound experiences—whether that is a glimpse of the night sky or an intimate relationship.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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23 Responses to A Better Life, the Movie. Atheist Filmmaker Chris Johnson on His New Documentary

  1. Hank Pellissier says:

    I will be on vacation – until August 12 you can get ask James to get this published – via director@ieet.org thanks! Hank

    Like

  2. archaeopteryx1 says:

    My biggest complaint about atheism – and I’ve been an atheist for more years than I care to count – is that we have no organizational force behind us that prompts us to unite and do things to effect starvation in Africa or resist injustice in the world, wherever it may be found. I could be wrong, there could well be atheist organizations out there, of which I’m not aware, doing exactly that, but if not, there needs to be.

    Granted, the religious organizations that do those things, do them because they believe their god is watching and to use the opportunity to proselytize and “save souls,” but we need to be doing the same things, for no other reason than that they simply need to be done. One problem that I see is that we don’t have access to the collection plates that provide the funding for such endeavors, and there must be a way that that obstacle can be overcome. Kennedy’s Peace Corps was a great idea, but you don’t hear much about it anymore.

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    • Sha'Tara says:

      Hi Arch :) If “atheism” as a counter to brainwash religion is to actually make a difference on this world (I’m not holding my breath here) it will not accomplish this by taking the path most travelled, but the least travelled. Institutionalization leads to collective power, which leads to perceived need for leadership which leads to corruption. That is history. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the term “atheist” is a label which confuses and disempowers. Believe all things, believe in nothing: self-empowerment. Leaders and rulers are the self-styled “descendants” of the gods. They sense “divine” authority upon them and ancient history demonstrates why that is: the original rulers were kings, and these earliest kings were anointed by the gods – yes there were “gods” here once upon a time. The kingship “was handed down from the gods unto earth” – a quote from old Sumerian writings.

      You want to make a difference? Be that difference within yourself. If you want to help Africans, you don’t need to go to Africa and inflate the airlines’ budgets or give Homeland Security another chance to fluff its ruff in intimidation tactics, i.e., why would you go to help Africans unless you are a potential terrorist? Look around you at the homeless, the battered, the oppressed in your own neighbourhood. They’re right here. And a self-empowered INDIVIDUAL without the need to pour personal wealth into maintaining ever-hungry institutions and ever-expanding bureaucracy can do much just by reaching out. That’s what I learned from my involvement with churches, charitable orgs., community groups, and working for the corporate sector for over 40 years. I saw the waste, and I experienced the frustration of pitting “Greenpeace” against Shell Oil (for example) and I thought, there has to be a more effective and meaningful way to express compassion.

      There is: it’s found in self-empowerment, the kind that Jon Rappoport, for example, teaches at such length. Man has yet to discover the one thing that will finally allow “him” to break free of that anchor, the handed down kingship, man’s old ball and chain. The creature has to discover for itself that it can be an individual; that it does not need any of the clap-trap of system or status-quo. Now I’m writing about real courage, not just talk and feel-good insular living within community. I’m writing about personal freedom which, if ever tapped into will see the gradual end of war and oppression as a natural consequence of that kind of thinking and acting. I’m not an atheist, deist or theist or any other sort of “ist” – I am a self-aware individual living in self-determination, a stranger in a strange land. It’s exhilarating because it transcends fear. Further, if I decide to do something “dangerous” no one else will be punished for my choices since no one else gets dragged into such paths. They are mine, and mine alone. No community would allow me this sort of freedom because it threatens both, the leadership and the members. I learned that lesson well!

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      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        I agree with everything you say, Sha’Tara, except for one:
        yes there were ‘gods’ here once upon a time. The kingship ‘was handed down from the gods unto earth’ – a quote from old Sumerian writings.

        I’ve studied the Sumerians, who indeed had a highly successful civilization that lasted 4,000 years, but when it came to gods, they were as clueless as the later Semitic Akkadians and Amurites who succeeded them as rulers of Mesopotamia, as were the Hebrews who descended from them.

        This may present a clearer picture as to where the “gods” came from:

        Like

      • MB says:

        I stopped reading your post when you used “man” in the so-called generic. “Man” in the so-called generic really says that the male is the gold standard of humanity. It is very offensive, and very male chauvinistic to use “man” as a “generic” term. Please use a more inclusive term like humanity or huma nkind.

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      • Sha'Tara says:

        I’m sorry, I don’t do emotional stuff. Yes, I use the term “man” generically, and yes, I am aware of how much misogyny goes on here. I don’t do political correctness either. I have no time and no use for emotional semantics that hide the real issues and get people fighting over whether a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it makes a noise.

        Why don’t I say “human” when describing Earthians? Because they are grossly inhumane in their relationships with each other and their world. How can someone claiming to be human think and behave inhumanely? Contradiction. A real human being is a naturally empathic and totally compassionate being. Man, or Wo-Man if you wish, is not a human being (there is no humanity here, no human-kind), just a perhaps evolving, more likely devolving, pseudo-human “creature” or for those who get twisted over the term “creature” since it may relate to being created by a god and are convinced that natural evolution can entirely explain this destructive species, an animal with insatiable appetite.

        I wasn’t writing about “man” per se, but explaining the difference between individual self-empowerment and collective dis-empowerment.

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      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Well, I got it, and it WAS addressed to me – I suspect that those who quibble over trivialities probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.

        Like

    • Excellent point, but I hope you mean “affect starvation,” meaning end it, since “effect starvation” would mean bring it into existence.

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      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Not necessarily, Mark:

        effect |iˈfekt|
        noun
        1 a change that is a result or consequence of an action or other cause

        affect 1 |əˈfekt|
        verb [ trans. ]
        have an effect on; make a difference to

        I think either would work.

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      • What you meant regarding African starvation in your initial post was perfectly clear, so I proceed at the risk of being labeled a pedant. (Actually, that was my middle name until changing it due to constant ridicule.)

        “Effect” is a noun (the subject of a verb). “Affect” is a verb (a word expressing action or state of being).

        Something that “affects” the amount of starvation is an example of an action that “makes a difference to” the amount of starvation.

        What effect does failing to affect starvation have? Starvation continues.

        Now that we’ve beaten that to death…

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      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Beating a dead horse isn’t nearly the fun it’s cracked up to be.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Lowell Bushey says:

      Hi, archaeopteryx1,

      Just a comment. The AHA has several charities, and makes an active appeal to its membership whenever e.g. a natural disaster strikes.

      Lowell Bushey

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      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        The American Humanist Association? I subscribe to their newsletter, but I’ve never seen an appeal – not saying there hasn’t been one, I just haven’t seen it.

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  3. Interesting interview, but Chris Johnson is completely naive when he says “…in the short time that we have to be alive.” This is an extremely destructive perspective which deserves challenge.

    That may turn out to be correct in the sense that any of us could die tomorrow, but it ignores scientific progress. Almost certainly, within the next two or three decades, science will not only defeat aging processes (as well as all other diseases), but reverse aging damage.

    In other words, we’ll be drastically healthier than when we were nineteen. Unless this technology scours the Earth of all life (a distinct possibility), we’ll be able to live so long that we might as well characterize it as immortality.

    When the general population loses fear associated with death, theistic religion’s empty promise of an afterlife will be almost universally seen as childish and pointless.

    Anti-aging technology only scratches the surface of what’s coming. For anyone interested in staying abreast of progress toward this goal: Foresight.org

    Like

  4. allanmerry says:

    Valerie- Learned and excellent as always!! A couple of random comments, primarily re Sha ‘Tara’s first long comment. (Oh, first, Not so fast, please, with Homeland Security. There are other legitimate issues there. And myriad legal and needful reasons if one would like to go to Africa or the Middle East to help.) Personally, I do try to divide my limited resources along the local to Planet spectrum. Your opening paragraph includes Much that is valid. We definitely do need to “something” more, and maybe different. My spouse Merry and I share your “don’t hold your breath” outlook concerning “big-brain-Human” survival; if not for exactly the same reasons. And I share your limit of interest in “lower level” of the “what’s real” debate over the science/philosophy junction. Yet I, we, most certainly do not live in Fear of “the future,” nor in despair of it. And I believe that proceeding from there to Total Personal Independence of Responsibility is fraught. As you point out, “Self Knowledge” is “First and Fundamental.” And it is an ongoing, Permanent quest. And we must be careful about acting upon whatever we believe our current progress to be. I know of none who claims to have achieved it; and I’m still way in the middle of it. Total individual independence is another name for anarchy. As independent as we might feel, we can and do take actions that are injurious to other lives in truly innumerable, infinite instances; and we have an individual responsibility to have a “communal” interest. I suspect you’d agree. We MUST concurrently figure out how to construct levels of agreeable and tolerant Community(ies) that succeed in nine billion humans living peacefully within the resources of our minds and the Planet we currently occupy. Fairly quickly. Single example: As I write, I know intimately, personally, that there significant numbers of “connected” individuals throughout the US who believe that “The Government” has already reached the level of tyranny that justifies armed rebellion under the 2nd Amendment. Like it or not, we have to have ground rules. That necessity, too, I suspect we’d all agree to. Hey ALL, let’s keep the conversation up.

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    • Sha'Tara says:

      Quote: “And I believe that proceeding from there to Total Personal Independence of Responsibility is fraught” I hope you realize I never wrote any such: those are your words, or your interpretation of what I meant by self empowerment. Obviously the term “self empowerment” is highly suspect among Earthians – their leaders/rulers certainly do not want any of them to ever realize what that means. By definition, and logic, self-empowerment means to fully grasp the meaning of taking responsibility for “all of it” within one’s sphere of influence. It’s the complete opposite of not taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and acts.

      I cannot “teach” the meaning of self empowerment in comments, it took me a lifetime to grasp the concept, but here’s the short-short surface version of what it means to be self empowered.

      A self-empowered individual is a compassionate individual (I could add “driven to resolve issues and live compassionately”).

      S/he needs no-one to define the right and wrong of things. There is no need for rules, or laws or enforcement of such; no need for coercion to act when necessary; to refrain when wisdom calls for such. To deal justly and morally with one’s environment is hard-wired in the self-empowered mind. Self empowerment is the engine, if you will, that dictates to the individual mind the proper way to respond to situations, crises and in all ordinary circumstances. If/when the mind fails in the compassionate approach the “engine” responds instantly with judgment and demand for course correction. There is no equivocation, no place to hide, no excuses or blame possible.

      Imagine for one moment how threatening that sort of being can be to a System that feeds off of Earthian collectives’ fear, inflated egos, biases, hate, anger, bullying, lying, cheating, stealing, raping, oppressing and warring (legalized mass murder). Imagine a being who needs none of that no matter the changing circumstances, times, or landscape. Now… imagine someone who does not need to get even; someone who refuses to recognize any individual as an enemy yet lives in constant enmity to the System and won’t make deals with it.

      A quote to ponder (some will recognize the source) “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers, against the authorities, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Any self empowered individual knows exactly what that means.

      Like

      • Lowell Bushey says:

        Hi, Sha’Tara,

        I agree with you completely here. In fact, I regard individuals who claim that they couldn’t act ethically and morally without the aid of religion as very scary!

        Lowell Bushey

        Like

      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Lowell, I suggest you Google “Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and criticisms”

        Like

  5. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, archaeopteryx1,

    I did a quick glance at my AHA files, and found one from 8/17/11. The AHA was recognized by the Better Business Bureau as an accredited charity. That article makes reference to Foundation Beyond Belief, an AHA affiliated organization that directs donations to numerous charities that meet their standards.

    Lowell Bushey

    Like

    • archaeopteryx1 says:

      Lowell, I couldn’t care less about donations – I once worked as a fundraiser, special gifts, for the San Diego Special Olympics, and I know what a small percentage of donations actually go to the people they were designed to help. I want to know what I, physically, can do, regardless of where it may be in the world.

      Like

      • Lowell Bushey says:

        Hi, archaeopteryx1,

        The only thing that I can find on the AHA website is “Volunteer Regional Grassroots Coordinators”.

        Do you have a local Humanist Group? The Moscow group engages in several volunteer activities during the year, the most notable of which is helping the local homeless shelter set up their annual auction.

        Like

      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Not that I’m aware of.

        Like

  6. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, archaeopteryx1,

    Kohlberg’s stages are indeed interesting. It appears that most “fundies” are at stage 3. Their tribal loyalty seems to hold almost without exception. Their current attitude toward fighting gay marriage clearly makes them anti-government, so they haven’t progressed to stage 4. Their past behavior is no exception either. Witness the near anarchy of the anti-abortion protests during the reign of Bush I, and the fit they threw over the Engel v Vitale school prayer decision.

    Further note: I can’t get it out of my mind that most “law enforcement people” assume that the public is at stage 1.

    Lowell Bushey

    Like

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