Sometimes it helps to see your story from the safe distance of a TV screen. If not your story in particular, the story of someone whose journey is so like yours that it transcends the differences of place and time - even of faith. Some of the most meaningful films I’ve seen tell the tales of people with backgrounds very different from mine. What we have in common is the courage to question, the struggle to live authentically, and the tenacity to find freedom.
If you find yourself feeling lonely after the losses of deconversion, or you could use a little encouragement to stay true to yourself in the face of discrimination and doubt, I hope you find comfort in the following films. All of them brought me some measure of catharsis. Without further ado, may I present...
10 Films for People Who Dared to Doubt
Not for the faint of heart, but if Scorsese-style violence doesn't bother you, you may really appreciate the depth of this film exploring apostasy, persecution, and the wavering of faith and doubt, all set against the backdrop of 17th century Japan. Two Jesuit priests search for their missing mentor while ministering to Japanese villages in secret. The threat of a torturous death looms over them if discovered, and their commitment to Catholicism is tested when they learn the mentor they seek may have renounced his faith. Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo.
One of the most uplifting films on the subject of challenging religion I may have ever seen. This documentary follows Imagine Dragons’ lead singer Dan Reynolds as he takes on bigotry from within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Viewing himself in the unique position of being able to fight for LGBTQ+ inclusion as a practicing Mormon instead of as an outsider, Reynolds creates the Love Loud Fest, a music festival raising awareness and money for LGBTQ+ rights in the fight to end skyrocketing rates of teen suicide. I cried. A lot.
This movie absolutely wrecked me. It’s from the same producers of Passion of the Christ, so if you’re sensitive to physical violence, you may want to pass on this excruciating true story of a woman falsely accused of adultery and then stoned to death under the dictates of Islamic Sharia law. It motivated me to research and donate to underground railroads helping women escape the brutality of religious extremism. Based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam.
When I first tried watching this documentary on childhood indoctrination, I couldn’t finish it. Ten minutes in and I begged my boyfriend to turn it off, heart pounding as flashbacks assaulted my memory. Remembering all of the times I faked the Holy Spirit made me realize I didn’t want to keep faking faith for the rest of my life, and I became an atheist shortly thereafter. Years later, when I finally finished watching this film, I felt so affirmed. I don’t think I’ve seen a more accurate depiction of my time in children’s ministries. If you were raised evangelical with a Charismatic slant, I bet it’ll resonate with you, too.
Higher Ground | Directed by Vera Farmiga
If Jesus Camp depicted what my childhood looked like, Higher Ground hit me as an all-too-relatable portrayal of my young adulthood. This true story is about one woman’s conversion to and departure from a fundamentalist expression of Charismatic Christianity. I saw myself in every female character, from the judgy home group leader to the injured girl hoping for a miracle to the lost woman trying to pray in tongues and feeling absolutely nothing. It even has those funny, embarrassing moments, like surreptitiously flirting in church. Based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs originally called This Dark World.
Oh, how I’m morally conflicted by this film. Vikram Gandhi documents his posing as an eastern Indian spiritual guru who rapidly gains a devout following. What happens when he reveals to his devotees that he is simply a false prophet from New York out to prove that you are your own guru? I’ll let you find out. Part-satire, part-undercover expose on what NPR calls the “absurdity of blind faith,” this documentary plays like a social experiment in the vein of Borat meets a New Age yoga cult. I’m conflicted because people were deceived. But, that’s kind of the point.
If you haven’t yet seen this movie based on the memoir by Garrard Conley about being a Baptist pastor’s son who is outed as gay and pressured into conversion therapy, you’re missing one of the most significant films to expose the underbelly of evangelicalism to mainstream society. If you’re like me and grew up believing homosexuality - or anything other than cis-heterosexuality - was a demonic affliction one needed healing from, scenes will resonate. Perhaps painfully. But things are changing - Canada just became the latest country to ban conversion therapy. I don’t doubt Garrard’s story is playing a powerful role.
This movie about purity culture was made before purity culture was even a term. Based on the true stories of three Irish girls locked in an asylum for the “crimes” of flirting, having a child out of wedlock, and being raped by a family member, this film shows their struggle to maintain hope as they fight to survive abuse and plan an escape. Set in 1960s Ireland, this story is as much about female guilt as it is about Catholic guilt, and its harrowing display of religion’s fear of women is universal.
I recently discussed on The Free Thought Prophet podcast how this documentary, though scathing, validated me at a time when I really needed reassurance that I wasn’t going to hell. Say what you will about Bill Maher and his mockery-style exposé of the holes in Christianity, but I say there is a time and place for what I call “angry atheism.” This 2008 film found me one year out of faith, still shaky and battling what I would later know were symptoms of religious trauma, and I trembled with vindication as I sat in the theater watching Maher debunk things I hated to admit still haunted me.
The directors of Jesus Camp bring you another inside peek into one of the most isolated religious groups in America: ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Following a divorced woman on the verge of losing her children, a knowledge-hungry survivor trying to find his way in the secular world, and a man who left his family and the only community he ever knew to be an actor, this documentary shows the heartbreaking fallout of what can happen when you challenge a belief system regarded as law. Emotional, educational, and hopeful, this film left me contemplating the line between religious freedom and abuse.
BONUS WATCH! Since we are in the era of social distancing and self-quarantine, you might be needing a new series to get sucked into. Allow me to include…
If you haven’t watched this cinematic show yet, get ready! It’s everything you’ve heard and then some. Seasons 1-3 in particular chronicle the arc of one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen on television: the Christian monk Athelstan. Kidnapped during a Viking raid to live as a household slave, Athelstan gradually comes to learn the Northmen are not the heathens he expected, nor is his faith as solid as he believed. The loneliness and liberty of his deconversion are sure to resonate - and the conversations between him and his Norse god-worshipping friends make this series underrated for its philosophical depth.
And there you have it, my list of movies that helped me as I dared to doubt! What films or TV shows helped you process your journey in and out of faith? Comment below, I can’t wait to watch them!