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A scene from ‘Losing Our Religion.” Courtesy of Zoot Pictures

Observer film review: ’Losing Our Religion’

By Pieta Woolley

So, you're a faith leader who still believes in God?

S/He is probably holding you back. After all, the future is atheist. You’ll need to get with the program and use your pastoral skills to manifest new caring, secular communities.

That's the overall message of Losing Our Religion, a feature-length documentary from Winnipeg-based filmmakers Leif Kaldor and Leslea Mair that premiers on the Documentary Channel on Sunday, Oct. 15, at 9 p.m. It consists of interviews with several U.S., U.K. and Canadian Christian faith leaders who no longer believe in God, including United Church minister Rev. Gretta Vosper. (If nothing else, this film gives viewers a better understanding of Vosper’s avowed atheism while helping to contextualize the United Church's reaction to her. Or, if you're among the one in five United Church ministers who no longer believe in a supernatural, theistic God, it’ll help you to consider your own prospects.)

Many of those interviewed are part of the Richard Dawkins Foundation's Clergy Project, a confessional and community for Christian leaders who no longer believe, and a Taft University study about pastors who lose their religion. Also appearing in the film are the atheist provocateur Richard Dawkins, himself, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation's founder Dan Barker, as well as leaders from Oasis and Sunday Assembly, which are church-like communities for non-believers.

The film's foundation rests on the statistical reality that congregations across the Christian spectrum are swiftly closing and that humans still crave church-like communities after a belief in God has gone. The clergy tell their own stories; the most compelling is that of Brendan Murphy. Appealingly open and frank, Murphy's crisis comes when one parishioner asks him to pray for his safety during his car trip to Las Vegas. Then, the pastor sees Syrian children dying from Sarin gas attacks on TV. Why would God listen to prayers for a car trip to "Sin City," when He won't listen to parents' prayers for their own children?

As Murphy describes his loss of faith, the camera lingers on his wife Jenn's face, revealing her grief and disbelief — the film's most nuanced moment. His complete journey as an evangelical pastor who faces rejection and unemployment before finding new hope forms the backbone of the film. Certainly, such stories exist. But Losing Our Religion suffers from stark one-sidedness. Too many people appear, making the same points (and frankly, there are so many people featured in this film, it's hard to remember who is who). Where’s the counterbalance — a voice that says that they still believe in God in the midst of a secular culture — or someone who lost faith before finding it all over again?

For most of us, both faith and disbelief are far more complex than what's offered here. In fact, I wondered if the filmmakers set out with a sophisticated enough understanding of religion and spirituality to be able to draw out deeper stories, or if much of the richer conversations were cut out for time.

Because the film sweeps across the breadth of Christian denominations, from Catholics to Evangelicals to Lutherans, it's unclear whether there’s a story beyond a few, newly disbelieving clergy. Is this 'trend' really something new? Or have small numbers of clergy always lost faith? And what’s really driving parishioners out of churches? Statistically, two-thirds of Canadians say they believe in God. They're just not showing up for church.

Granted, the film does a fine job of outlining the surface story: yes, Christendom is crashing, and atheist faith leaders need new jobs. But there's so much more for future filmmakers to wrestle with here. Here's hoping this is the first of many films documenting Western Christianity's momentous shift.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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