Jeff Jackson – Atheism Goes to the Movies

Jeff Jackson - Atheism Goes to the Movies ((Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Jeff Jackson, a screenwriter and filmmaker from Los Angeles, gave an intriguing talk to the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara (HSSB) about atheists in the movies. He raised many questions about the Hollywood film industry and about religion in the US.

Since the start of COVID, most of our HSSB events had been online, but we are trying to get back to more in person events. Notably, with events like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory tour! This event with Jeff Jackson was held in person at Live Oak Unitarian Society in Goleta, with others participating on Zoom. Here was the scene at Live Oak as people gathered before the talk:

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Here Jackson posed with HSSB President Judy Flattery before the talk:

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Jeff Jackson began his career in the world of advertising. He wrote, directed, and starred in the acclaimed short film, “Our First Fight”, a romantic comedy which toured film festivals around the world. His feature-length screenplay, “White Collared”, a black comedy set in corporate America, won Best Screenplay at the 2010 Santa Barbara Film Festival. Jackson is also a playwright. He has also directed theatrical productions in the New York area.

Jackson began his talk noting that he had given this talk several times, but this was the first time in a church! Some audience members replied that the Unitarian Society is not a typical church.

Jackson’s presentation began by showing some key ways that entertainment and pop culture have influenced social change.

He then showed a photo of Elton John performing in the USSR in 1979. Elton John was not the first to do so, but he was the most famous.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Others followed his lead. David Bowie, the Eurythmics, Genesis and others performed at the Berlin Wall in 1987, broadcasting over the wall. Billy Joel performed a six city tour in the USSR in 1987.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Perhaps there is a connection?

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Jackson went on with another example of “entertainment” preceding revolutionary change.

“Modern Family” was a sitcom that ran from 2009-2020. Featuring a committed gay couple with an adopted daughter. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry in all 50 states in the case Obergefell v. Hodges.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)
(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

“There is an irrefutable connection between entertainment and societal change.”

What about for atheism? Not yet.

It is rare for atheism even to be mentioned in the movies or on TV. There are a few examples, but they’re all negative. House MD is an atheist. He is also a narcissist, a curmudgeon and “a general asshole”.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

In “Dead to Me” Christina Applegate plays an atheist. She is an alcoholic with anger management issues.

“Sunset Limited” stars Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel Jackson. The Tommy Lee Jones character is an atheist. He is suicidal and throws himself on subway tracks. The Samuel Jackson character is a Christian and rescues him.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Then, in 2011, “The Ledge” was presented as the first pro-atheist feature film ever released in the US. It scored 14% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is probably a good thing.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

The atheist “hero” Gavin meets a couple. He sleeps with the religious man’s wife. Of course. Atheists have no morals. Perhaps the film maker Matthew Chapman is a “self-hating atheist”. The religious husband proposed an Old Testament remedy for adultery: Kill the adulterers.

The “hero” is faced with the choice of jumping from a ledge or seeing the wife murdered. Not the best promotion of atheism. It seems “atheist” has become convenient shorthand in Hollywood for people with serious emotional problems.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is constantly actively promoting religion. The exact opposite of what the Right accuses Hollywood of doing.

In rapid succession he named a series of films that promoted religion and showed slides depicting many of them.

Including these horror movies: The Exorcist, The Conjuring, The Shining, Evil Dead, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Blair Witch Project.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Then there are plenty of “regular” films promoting religion, including: Heaven Can Wait, Bruce Almighty, It’s A Wonderful Life, Angels in the Outfield, Beetlejuice, Sister Act. And, of course, Oh, God.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Then there is an entire genre of Bible Stories films, including: Ben-Hur, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Ten Commandments, Noah and The Exodus.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

There are also religious movies made by religious organizations such as Pure Flix (now Pinnacle Peak). Their slogan: “Have faith in your entertainment.” They have 229 feature films, including God’s Not Dead 1-3!

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

The deck is clearly stacked against atheism. What is to be done?

Jeff Jackson explained that he was raised Christian. The basic garden variety Protestant type of Christian. He took it seriously into his 20s. It went away through a slow process of erosion. Until he was tipped over the edge by meeting his co-worker Bob.

Bob was a nice guy with a baby. They shared interests. One day Bob mentioned he was an atheist. He simply said, “I don’t believe in God.” Nothing dramatic. No arguments. He was not trying to convert anyone. This is Bob and his baby!

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

But that was enough. Jackson saw that this guy Bob was clearly a moral family man. And an atheist. There was no turning back.

Performing arts are Jackson’s passion. He is from the New York area. He worked with many people in the industry with good creative talent. Including himself. He worked with Disney Animation. He knows how to make a good movie.

He decided he should stop waiting for someone else to do this. He should make a movie showing atheism in a positive light.

He kicked around story ideas for years. For many years he had a live and let live attitude about religion and atheism.

His ex-wife was very Catholic.

She didn’t take her faith seriously. But she wanted a Catholic wedding. He knew that a Catholic wedding is a big deal. You have to be interviewed by a priest. He did not want to lie.

His fiancee was sweating bullets, afraid of what he might be asked. He stayed cool. He would just answer honestly. But it turned out the priest did not ask any tough questions. Looking back, he wonders what would have happened if that interview went differently.

This experience inspired him to write a romantic comedy. The female star Melissa wants to marry a nice young man Charlie who is an atheist. Melissa’s mother wants a religious wedding.

A young priest interviews Charlie. The priest ends up losing his faith! The title: “Our G*ddamn Wedding”. The goal of the film is mostly so the audience can meet a nice, normal atheist.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

His screenplay got a 90% score from the “We Screenplay” organization. Which is about as good as it gets.

One reviewer wrote, “There’s a mixture of kooky comedy and strange thematic poignancy here that stands out and showcases that the script is not being too self-important in its thematic cause.”

Another: “You’ve crafted a story that tells a touching, unique story about family and faith.”

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

He made a short film as a proof of concept. He is now raising money to make the full length feature film. He has put in $100,000 and needs about $1 million total. He is about half way there.

He hopes others will invest and/or offer connections for him.

He made the case for a very large potential audience. The “Nones” are people who don’t identify with any religion. They are the fastest-growing “religious” category. They make up about 29% of the US adult population!

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Many streaming platforms are available that would give a chance to such a film.

At their web site you can watch their short video and you can donate to help make the film!

Jackson asked, “Can my low budget indie film change everything? Of course not.”

But Elton John was not the first to play in the USSR. Cliff Richard was a minor star who played there first, thus opening the floodgates that would bring about real change. Jackson hopes he can be Cliff Richard.

Jackson then took questions and comments.

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

Nancy noted that the title will project humor. Jackson said humor is the best weapon. Romantic comedies are popular, especially on streaming platforms.

She also noted that atheism is a growing group. Jackson made a distinction between Nones and atheists. Nones are rapidly growing, but many identify as “spiritual but not religious”. Self-identified atheists are still a small minority.

Hal asked if he is getting the word out to other Humanist societies in the US. Jackson said he attended the Atlanta American Atheist Convention last year and got a good mailing list.

Judy Fontana asked if the people with money and power in Hollywood include many atheists. Jackson said there are some noted figures who are, but they may not come forward.

Obviously, there is Bill Maher. Also Seth McFarlane, Brad Pitt and Rob Reiner.

He doesn’t want to preach to the choir. His pet peeve isn’t the nasty fundamentalists. His ex-wife bugs him. She goes to church and doesn’t know why. These people don’t examine it. If religion is so important, it should constantly be reassessed.

A woman in the back said she was raised with religion and brainwashed as a child. She suggested that children should not have religion forced on them until they are of an age where they can decide for themselves.

Jackson said “brainwashed” may be too strong. More about becoming “familiar”. It becomes woven into your identity. It is hard to turn your back on your life connections. He talked of people who had to move to another part of the country to escape.

One man asked if Jackson planned to put forth moral behavior that is not church based. Jackson said he didn’t want to get that “heady”. Morality is best done by example. In his case, religious people wanted him to lie!

Bonnie talked about Bill Maher’s concern that comedians can get canceled for their jokes. Young people are the worst. Jackson said this is true. Ricky Gervais is an atheist who talks about poking fun at sacred cows.

I asked if GoFundMe can work at this scale. He said it can and he may try it.

Ron noted that Lennon’s song “Imagine” is well known. Jackson said the Moral Majority tried to ban it from radio stations.

It is also worth noting that “Imagine” imagines a better future without religion. This may have helped create the rise of the Nones. It is a great accomplishment. But we still need to take the next step to get to atheism.

One man liked the idea of the priest having a crisis of faith. This really is a thing. Judy Flattery reminded the group of The Clergy Project, which we learned about in a talk in January 2022.

This man said words matter. He claimed Bernie Sanders lost half his possible followers by calling himself a socialist. I said it was just the opposite. Calling himself a socialist was his best selling point. Even people who did not imagine supporting a socialist supported him for his honesty and courage.

Jackson indeed said that he “leans into it” with “atheism”.

In an ideal world we don’t even need a word for it. There is no word for people who don’t believe in leprechauns or vampires!

Jackson’s wife Beth talked of “chipping away”. Will and Grace, Ellen de Generes. Having one gay friend. Like Jackson’s friend Bob.

Jackson agreed. We are not trying to convert people. We are just trying to change perception. I suggested that we are trying to “normalize” atheism and Jackson agreed that is a good term.

Nancy claimed it is an uphill battle to “prove” atheism. Judy Flattery said the burden of proof is on the religious person. But Jackson made another point: He can’t prove there are no vampires. But he lives his life as if there are no vampires.

This was true in my case. In college I had a friend who called himself an atheist. The first atheist I had met. I asked how that could be. He said exactly those words, “Every day I live my life as if there is no God.” From that day forward I realized I was an atheist. I would claim that most religious people also live their daily lives as if there is no God!

I will add one more personal point. If you tell someone you think God with a capital G doesn’t exist, it is taken as a kind of insult. Like saying, “God is a poopy-head.” In recent years I have been saying, “I don’t believe in any gods.” It makes it more generic and less personal. Nothing personal about your god. I just don’t believe in any gods.

Gary Noreen asked if Jackson had talked to any big atheist organizations. They spend a lot on legal battles. Jackson said he talked to Nick Fish of American Atheists. They feel their priority is legislative battles. And maybe it should be.

Judy Flattery ended the talk noting that “everyone is an atheist”. We just believe in one less god than the religious people do.

For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to

You can also view and/or join the HSSB Meetup Group:

(Photo: Robert Bernstein)

– Robert Bernstein


Written by sbrobert

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  1. I keep wishing that these Humanist Society columns didn’t read as if they were transcribed directly from notes taken at the event. The writing is so choppy! Nevertheless, this was an interesting discussion! In the list of films with religious themes I did not see my favorite: “Dogma” directed by Kevin Smith. It has an amazing cast is funny and thoughtful, and was quite controversial due to its irreverent commentary on the Catholic Church. I highly recommend it. SBRobert, as a result of your article, I’m planning to donate to Jackson’s GoFundMe effort.

    • Yes! One of my all-time favorite movies.
      “Rights issues
      Dogma is unavailable to stream or purchase digitally due to the film’s rights being owned personally by Bob and Harvey Weinstein in a deal that predates streaming. [21] In 2022, instead of the release of Clerks III, Smith talked about trying to buy back the rights to Dogma from the Weinsteins. He claimed that both of his offers were “scoffed at” and added that “my movie about angels is owned by the devil himself.”[22][23]”

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