New York-based author Chris Johnson insists he never had any issue with being an atheist nor a gay man. But when he saw the impact religious orthodoxy was having on his queer friends, he became inspired to create a book of photographs of and interviews with various prominent atheists.
The result, A Better Life, has been drawing attention and enthusiastic reviews since its release last year. Johnson, a film-school graduate and theatre enthusiast, followed up with a documentary film of the same name, in which he talks to a cross-section of atheists about their philosophy and how being godless has left them no less fulfilled or intact as people. Interview subjects include musician and actor Adam Pascal (Rent), celebrity rock climber Alex Honnold and actor, comedian and SNL alumnus Julia Sweeney. The result is a moving meditation on what life means if we step away from the conventional answers offered by the world’s religions, both big and small. Johnson recently chatted with Queerty about the book and film A Better Life.
Chris Johnson: Due to the fact that my book and film have a fundamentally positive angle, I get less open criticism from religious people. If I had made a film called Fuck You God, the pushback would have been a lot greater. I think many religious people are taken aback by such a positive message, and don’t know how to react. However, the ideas presented in the film and book are pretty controversial. In the United States, many people think that without God, you have no moral compass, or that you must be missing something important in your life. Often, we are seen as grumpy, curmudgeonly people, and I wanted to challenge that stereotype and show atheists discussing the big questions in life and living a beautiful life — free from the constraints of religion and theism. If you think this is the only life you have, it affects how you view your life and the world around you. If there is no God up there pulling the strings, or influencing the world, it’s up to us to make the positive changes we want to see and improve the lives of others.
I was lucky — I was never religious and never had much of a struggle accepting my sexual orientation. However, many of my friends in the LGBT community who grew up in religious environments faced enormous struggles accepting their sexual orientation or gender identity. The constant obsession with controlling peoples’ sexuality through religion always baffled me. It’s amazing to me how much people seem to care about the consensual sexual practices of others. It’s really sad how religion can make people care about the wrong things. We have a country right now where people are spending millions of dollars, enormous resources, time and energy trying to stop consenting adults from getting married just because a religious book tells them it’s wrong. What a complete waste of time. If only we could use all those resources to actually do something good in the world.
Probably the thing that stuck with me the most was something Julia Sweeney talks about in the film. She mentions reflecting on the happiest moments in your life and how, at the end of the day, these memories are all we have to look back on. That really stayed with me throughout this journey. I’ve tried to be in the moment more when traveling and savoring the moments along the way. It can be difficult to not get lost in the day-to-day rat race of life, but it’s important to take a step back sometimes and savor the moments you’re living. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Why do you think there’s still such a passionate anger with atheism?
Well, I think there’s a good reason to be angry. Religious influence still has an enormous negative effect on this country and people around the world. LGBT people are committing suicide, people are being killed, rights being trampled on — all in the name of religion, and those are things we need to stand up against and try to change. I think that anger can be an effective tool in creating change and is completely understandable given the situation we are in. However, one of the reasons I started this project in the first place was to add to that conversation, a piece that I felt was missing — that was the positive side of atheism. We can talk about how the others get it wrong until we’re blue in the face, but if we don’t talk about how we get it right, we’re missing a huge part of the conversation, and that’s what I’m trying to show with this film.
Do you ever think of getting a T-shirt made that reads “GODLESS QUEER”?
[Laughs] No, but I should! I wonder where I would get the most amount of flack for that?
What’s the strangest question you have ever got at a question-and-answer session after a film screening?
Most of the questions at the Q&As have been really great. The film has really resonated with people around the world, and I’ve been struck at how people from various background have been moved by the themes and messages of it. In terms of the strangest question, at one screening, a woman noticed that I was wearing glasses at the screening but did not wear glasses in the film and asked me if that was a deliberate choice. I said yes. [Laughs] It was just easier that way.
For more information on Johnson, his book, film and dates for screenings and speaking engagements, go here.
Watch the film’s trailer below.