A Humanist Blockbuster

Back in December 2014, an Indian movie you’ve probably never heard of was one of the top 10 movies in America and top 5 in the world. This wasn’t a slow week. It was the week the Hobbit was released.

What makes this even more amazing is that this international blockbuster was made by Humanists. It starred a prominent Humanist. And it’s a movie satirizing not only the inefficacy of religion, but the immorality of the people who sell religion. The success of this movie shows that when Humanism is presented properly, it’s extraordinarily popular.

This movie is called PK. It is now the highest grossing Indian movie of all time. Before the movie starts – they have a disclaimer – it is not our intent to offend anyone’s religion. The only thing missing from that was the “but ….” This is an extremely pointed social critique wrapped in an entertaining movie starring one of India’s top talents.

The religious critique is so pointed; I couldn’t believe they had gotten away with it. No wonder almost every faith in India filed a defamation lawsuit. What was even more amazing was hearing the sold out audience I saw the movie with cheering every time the lead character skewers a religious belief as false, abusive and a monumental waste of time and money.

Given how much we Humanists in America struggle to get the word out about Humanism, the movie PK should serve as a lesson to all of us. If Humanists in India can make a movie critiquing religion and encouraging a more humanist approach to life and have it be a global blockbuster, they are clearly doing something right.

The first thing PK does right is that it is entertainment. This is a movie that will make you laugh, cry and fall in love all over again. At points it will break your heart and terrify you. It will also make you laugh out loud and cheer.

We Humanists in the west tend to be intellectual. As a result, when we present Humanism, we do so logically. If an American Humanist were to make a movie, it would be a documentary. It would be dry, boring, and argumentative and no one would want to see it. This is a real problem we need to address. It doesn’t matter how important something is. Unless you can convince people to learn about it, it will remain unknown.

PK works because it doesn’t lecture. It’s a compelling story and we are shown through that story how religion is not only not effective at solving problems it is counterproductive. It does this by showing what happens when someone takes religion literally. The result is both tragic and funny.

Despite the pointed religious critique, it wasn’t atheists and Humanists who made this movie a blockbuster. This movie was embraced by people of faith who were so invested in the story and rooting for the main character that yes, they hated what religion did to him! They stayed with this movie because it was funny. They believed it. It resonated with their personal experiences with religion.

One of the reasons why they stayed with this movie despite its anti-religion morality was because the lead actor is Aamir Khan. He is one of the 3 big Khans of Bollywood. He’s a stupendous actor, a wonderful dancer and a Humanist who chooses his projects based on their social relevance. He also has a very popular TV show called Satyamev Jayate which can be seen on YouTube with English subtitles. This Humanist program is now in its 3rd season and it generates some of the highest trending hashtags on twitter globally. Aamir has tackled everything from the caste system and gender inequality to water rationing, housing, female infanticide and more. People like him and expect him to tackle important social issues in an engaging and heartfelt way. He is able to do this because he leads with compassion and he respects religious diversity even when he is telling people their beliefs are part of the problem. Only after everyone is convinced there is a problem worth solving does he introduce a reason based solution to the problem. At times I feel we Humanists in America do this backward. We propose the solution, rail against religion for not agreeing with us and forget that we first have to convince people the problem we want to fix is worth fixing.

This brings us back to the movie PK. The story of PK is loosely based on the movie K-Pax. Very loosely. It is the movie that K-Pax should have been. PK is about an alien who visits earth and is immediately robbed of his remote. He can’t call his spaceship to pick him up without it, so he spends the rest of the movie trying to find his remote. Everyone he asks tells him to pray to various gods for help. But prayer, as we Humanists know, doesn’t work. The gods appear to be absent. Through his journey even people of faith are forced to accept that prayer can’t solve our hero’s problem and it’s ridiculous to think it could.

We are also shown the many ways that the selling of religion harms people and how devote belief interferes with love and life. The most heart breaking moments of the film are caused by pious devotion.

People who follow my writing know that I rarely write about religion and/or atheism. My Humanism is pragmatic. It’s about solving problems effectively, compassionately and ethically. Religious belief doesn’t help us solve our problems. It doesn’t even offer real comfort.

Seeing this reality manifested in an entertaining movie made millions of people all over the world reconsider their relationship to their faith and to their faith leaders. To me PK represents how we as Humanists should be presenting our philosophy. PK was popular because it’s a movie is about a guy with a problem that faith can’t solve. His problem can only be solved by people helping other people. It doesn’t attack religious belief as much as it attacks the business of selling false promises through religion. Based on the success of this movie, it’s a message people of faith are clearly willing to hear.

Like pretty much everyone who has seen this film, my first thought was I need to see it again. My second thought, as a Humanist, was “everyone in the world needs to see this film.” I wasn’t alone. The most common comment I heard as I left the theater with a sold out crowd on opening weekend was – it’s about time someone said what we all know to be true. This movie became a blockbuster because people told their friends to see this movie. It speaks the truth. A truth everyone knows. Religion doesn’t work. It’s a waste of time and money and it causes more harm than good.

Humanity needs and wants Humanism. The global popularity of PK shows us this. If we have failed to gain traction for Humanism the fault lies with us. Instead of encouraging people towards atheism, we should be focusing on showing them how to solve their problems rationally instead.

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